Singapore Tatler Features: The Next Generation Steps Up
Singapore Tatler, May 2016
By Hong Xinyi and Chong Seow Wei
School of Hard Knocks
Laureen, Kenneth and Sam Goi
Tee Yih Jia and GSH Corporation
The beginnings of Sam Goi’s billion-dollar business empire came from a very universal impulse – the desire to step out of a parent’s shadow and make one’s own mark in the world. As a teenager, he had dropped out of secondary school and joined his father’s drinks distribution business, but decided at age 19 to set up an electrical repair’s shop.
Unfortunately the business flopped within months, earning him a dreadful scolding from his fathers, who had loaned him $10,000 as start-up capital.
But Sam did not give up. Boning up on his engineering skills through night classes, and with loans from his uncle and a grassroots credit association, he tried again. His second mechanical and electrical engineering business did much better. In 1977, he acquired Tee Yih Jia, then a modest pastry factory, and used his engineering know-how to design an automated system that kickstarted the company’s transformation into Singapore’s leading frozen foods manufacturer. This success earned him the moniker, Popiah King.
Today’s Sam Goi is a far cry from that restless teenager with something to prove. At east in his palatial office in his Senoko building, he converses candidly in Mandarin and is quick to point out that his late father taught him many valuable lessons despite their different approaches to business.
“My father was very conservative. He didn’t like risks, and he didn’t smoke or drink or socialise. It can be hard to do business if you are like that, because these are ways to get to know people in a more relaxed atmosphere,” says Sam.
“He was very down to earth and hardworking. He was thrifty, but very willing to help others. He taught me how to endure hardship, and how to be a good person.”
These are the same values that Sam has tried to pass on to his four children. His second child Laureen, the general manager of export sales and marketing at the privately-held Tee Yih Jia, says: “When we were young, he never failed to ask us how much we had in savings. He always advised us to allocate a portion of our savings to help relatives in China, where our family roots are, or those who are less fortunate. Even now, he still tries to instil this way of thinking in his grandchildren, my nieces and nephews.”
Sam, a noted philanthropist, puts it more humorously: “It’s hard to get money from me if it’s my children asking for it. But when it comes to making donations, I am happy to help.”
His own hardships have also shaped his approach to their upbringing. Born in Fuqing, China, Sam arrived in Singapore at age six and struggled with English as a student. “My father couldn’t afford tuition then,” he says, a touch wistfully. Ï think maybe if I had had a little help I would have been able to do well.” To give his children a strong foundation in the Chinese language and traditional values, he sent his sons to Maris Stella and his daughters to CHIJ St Nicholas, setting high expectations for their academic results.
When they were older, he sent them to the US to continue their studies, accompanied by his wife. American culture is more agile, daring, and proactive,” he explains, and he wanted his children to learn those traits. American entrepreneurs can conquer the business world dressed in jeans and sneakers. Their culture is not contrived, and I am more at ease with that.”
While he describes himself as a strict and traditional father in many ways, Sam has always treated his sons and daughters equally when it comes to their participation in the business, judging them only by their abilities. There is distinct pride in his voice when he reveals that Laureen has chosen to stay on at the company even though other firms can knocking with higher salary offers. When his eldest daughter decided to become a teacher after a few years in the business, he says he felt a certain sense of loss. “If I had told her to stay, she would have stayed, but I didn’t try to. There is no point in retaining her if her heart is not in it.” Sam’s youngest son Ben spent close to 10 years at Tee Yih Jia, and is now running his own business.
Business Boot Camp
The thing about training one’s own children, Sam adds, is that they have a deeper connection to the business and can be pushed harder. “Without pressure, there is no motivation. My children know that if I say so, they have to do it, and they know they have to do it fast and well. When you work here, there is no such thing as the boss’ kid or sibling – everyone is treated the same.”
The training period for the Goi children who chose to work in the business was a matter of decades, because Sam insists that they start at the bottom, working the production line, stocking supermarket shelves, and making deliveries. Both Laureen and Sam’s third child Kenneth agree that they have emerged the better for it.
“There are a lot of things we can learn by starting at the beginning. I can empathise better when managers approach me with problems and can analyse the situation better,” says Kenneth, executive director of business development at GSH Corporation, a publicly-listed property developer in which Sam is the largest shareholder with a 47.5% stake.
Kenneth’s decision to become involved in a first Tee Yih Jia and now GSH was driven by a universal impulse of a different kind – to carry on work that has been deeply meaningful to his elders. Seeking his own challenges, he had started a food logistics company in 2000. Then, a few years ago, he found himself sitting across his father as a function. “I suddenly realised he has aged a lot – which he will deny,” Kenneth says with a laugh. “That was when I decided I have to make plans about what I should be doing.”
Laureen similarly did not start out with any plans to work for her father, but came to view her involvement in the company as both a responsibility and an obligation because of her late grandfather, who would “talk to me every day about how it’s not easy to build up a business”. She quips: “My father and grandfather were very good at brainwashing.”
Both siblings are somewhat more reserved compared to the outgoing Sam. “He is able to blend in under any situation, approach the right person and make them comfortable enough to open up. That’s a skill I’m still trying to learn,” says Kenneth. “He is also very focused. If he wants ao accomplish something, he knows what needs to be done to achieve that target.”
Laureen says Sam’s style is more instinctive, whereas she is more analytical. But they have all grown comfortable with the differences in their personalities and leadership styles. “I’ve told him before that one mountain cannot contain two tigers. We cannot follow his style because we are different people,” she says.
As to whether Kenneth’s three children will follow in his footsteps, he says: “We will definitely expose them to the business. If they have the interest, I would be delighted, but they should not take it for granted that they will be the third generation.”
Guarding against a sense of entitlement is a greater challenge now, he admits. “When we were young, our family circumstances were not as ideal and we witnessed the hardship my dad went through. Now, we are more well off and I have to explain to my kids that running a business is very hard work.”
Sam has similar concerns. “If you grow up in a comfortable environment, when you meet difficulties as an adult you might lose confidence. So the important thing is, children cannot be treated like little emperors. My wife Jaqueline taught out children very well, so I never had to worry about that.”
He says he is still energised by planning new ventures and has no plans to retire. “I still have ambition. If you have that drive, you should conquer new worlds.”
That may be a sentiment his eldest grandchild already understands. Sam proudly shares an audio clip of the boy declining his offer of a new watch because he thinks it’s too expensive. The doting grandfather is clearly pleased by this sense of thrift.
“He says he will do better than me when he takes over my seat,” says Sam, looking amused at this childish and perhaps promising bravado. “He says that’s no problem.”
Brave New World
Tan Siong Kern and Marcus Tan
At first glance, Tan Siong Kern, Founder of commodities trading firm Wee Tiong, and his son Marcus appear to be studies on contrasts. Marcus, CEO of the company, is quick to supply a sunny sound bite, while Siong Kern prefers to cede the spotlight and has to be coaxed into sharing his entrepreneurship story.
In a nutshell, the 66-year-old says he was a naughty child who preferred basketball games with his friends to tome in the classroom, and dropped out of secondary school to start his own business in the 1970s. He began with delivering foodstuffs, owing to his experiences in helping out in his father’s provision shop, and later moved into sugar and rice trading with the help of a family friend.
Marcus, on the other hand, was a model student who scored excellent grades at The Chinese High School, Hwa Chong Junior College and later Nanyang Technological University, where he studied engineering. “He never needed tuition, and his math was always very good,” Siong Kern recalls. “I never had curfews because I was never late, and I never skipped classes,” Marcus says.
The two have always had a relatively easygoing relationship, they agree. One of their more significant differences in opinion came about when Siong Kern asked Marcus to try out working in the family business for a year after he graduated from university. “I was a bit surprised,” says Marcus, whose elder brother Wee Tiong is a director at the company. “But he needed more help, so I have it a try.”
His engineering background enabled him to implement more systematic and streamlined operations, but the 39-year-old says he also learned from his father’s more instinctive approach: “His style is more about self-learning, rather than spoon-feeding us. I observe how he speaks to people and handles business relationships – it’s always been about the chemistry.”
The most significant change Marcus introduced was forming a team of traders to conduct extensive research into worldwide supply and demand of commodities. This information is provided to customers and suppliers to assist them in their decision-making. Today, this futures element comprises 80 per cent of Wee Tiong’s business, and annual revenue has increased by about 131 per cent over the past 10 years to about $462.5m under Marcus’ charge.
“The old business model was losing ground because the market was changing, so we needed to change,” he says. “By taking a position, we can play more of a holistic consultancy role, and are able to advise that the market will need a particular brand at this particular time or that the price of a commodity will move this way.”
Accolades that Wee Tiong has earned include being the only traditional rice and sugar SME in the coveted Global Trader Programme run by International Enterprise Singapore, and becoming the only company selected for the prestigious Enterprise 50 Award for 10 consecutive years.
Marcus himself took the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 (Emerging) award. He is currently in the midst of taking Wee Tiong in another new direction. The company has formed a new trading arm in the marine fuels industry and is also discussing a potential collaboration with Malaysian physical supplier Victory Supply. “It’s a good time to enter this market as oil prices are down,” says Marcus. “It can be a turning point for the company and propel us to another lever, maybe even to an IPO if it works out.”
This move comes after much groundwork on his part, including a month of persuading his father that it was a step in the right direction. “My dad didn’t understand my point at first, so I had to do a better job of explaining my rationale,” says Marcus. “But he tends to let me have my way even when we disagree, because the trusts that I know what I’m doing.”
Siong Kern says he was hesitant at first because he was already content with how the company was doing. “My father always said, if you think it’s too good to be true, then you must process very carefully.”
But his own penchant for diverting from the expected routed reveals itself in other ways. The one-time truant still plays basketball regularly with old friends, and never did pick up golf like most of his peers. “People did tell me to play golf as it would help my business, but I just want to do what I like.”
Beyond Skin Deep
Mary and Qli Quek
Discipline is the most important value for our family, be it in how we behave or how we present ourselves. No shorts to slippers if we’re going out – my grandfather instilled this in my mum, who instilled it in me. It’s not just about first impressions, but also because dressing up is a form of respect for others.” This may seem decorous today, but for Qli Quek, it is something deeply entrenched in her roots.
The 24-year-old who “was very clingy to my mum and went everywhere she went” practically grew up in the Nankai boutique, then in Wisma Atra, where she would observe how her mother Mary interacted with customers. Nankai’s two stores today are in Ngee Ann City and Singapore Flyer.
“Mum always served customers tea first, before finding out what they needed. At our store’s previous location in Ngee Ann City, which was larger, a lot of customers would stay for a whole afternoon, shopping and chatting with my mum, aunts and uncles.”
The brand, which specialises in high-end exotic skin products, was founded by her late grandfather Quek Ha Geok in 1971. Many loyal customers have become family friends who come by for tea or invite the family out to dinner, says Qli, who joined the business as a designer in 2012 after graduating from Nanyang Polytechnic.
A good number of Nankai’s clientele are tourists and Japanese living in Singapore, thanks to the strong reputation the patriarch built from the start. Around the Ngee Ann City store today, Mary and her six siblings converse easily with their Japanese customers and each other in Japanese, as if it were a local dialect.
“My mother’s generation is big on building strong relationships with people,” says Qli. “They taught me the importance of human interaction, how to treat out suppliers and customers. When I was in Secondary 4 and came to help out at the store during special events, I thought sales was just about asking customers what they wanted, giving them that and sending them off happy. I didn’t understand why my mum could go on and on talking to them.
“I’m still learning how to do this today,” she adds, admitting that she is naturally quiet and reserved, but working in the family business has made her more confident of the way she speaks and presents herself to others.
Mary herself had been appointed by her father to help with sales at the store immediately after she finished pre-university. She is now the company’s chairwoman. “I’m always thinking about my customers now, especially the older ones overseas who can no longer visit us because they are too old to take a flight to Singapore. I keep in close contact with several of them, calling to check up on how they’re doing and to catch up. Many of them are happy when I do so, and we usually end up chatting for a while.”
Now, the family’s third generation has taken on the task of building relationships of its own. Qli and her 30-year-old cousin Wong Yi Sheng, who joined a few months ahead of her, are enthusiastic about modernising the brand to appeal to a younger clientele.
Back in 2005, Yi Sheng, who now handles the company’s finances and business development, managed to convince the family to invest in developing a website, via which Nankai gets most of its overseas bespoke requests today.
And because Nankai had a “very aunty and tai tai” image, as Qli’s uncle and the company’s managing director E S Quek quips, Qli introduced Quaint in 2015, a subsidiary line of chic handbags that uses more lambskin than croc- or snakeskin to appeal to those in their 20s and 30s.
The cousins say it’s an ongoing process of persuading the older generation of their business plans. “With different generations involved in the business, there is a lot of compromising. If there are disagreements, we always try to come to a middle ground so there isn’t any politics,” says Qli.
Confidence in the third generation is clearly strong. Mary has semi-retired now that her daughter and nephew have joined the company. She drops by the Ngee Ann City store once a week when customers ask for her of if she’s needed to sign important documents. “I’m happy and relieved that we have the third generation involved to help us sustain and grow our business.”
Kee Yi Arn
Director of Applied Digital System
“It’s been the actions of both my parents [Robert and Susan Kee] that have shaped me over my 30-plus years. They don’t lead extravagant lifestyles, which teaches me the value of money and humility. My dad always used to say, ‘Money does not fall from the sky’. As I watch my parents run the family business, I see that success does not come without hard work. My dad also founded the charity Operation Hope Foundation, and both my parents showed the importance of devoting time and effort for social entrepreneurship and doing honest charity work.”
CEO and executive director of Hai Leck Holdings
“My dad [Cheng Buck Poh] taught me to never take short cuts in life and to understand that oue employees are our greatest asset. We treat everyone with respect and work together like a big family. He cares a lot for our employees, so we have people who have been with us for 40 years and many ask their family members to join us. He might be executive chairman, but he’s a simple and down-to-earth person who buys lunch back to eat with his staff in the boardroom, and has friends from all walks of life. Now it’s my turn to build a closer relationship with our people and to continue the tradition of training out next generation leaders.”
Executive director of Huber’s Butchery
“The best advice from my dad [Ernst Huber, chairman] was to uphold the highest integrity in everything I do. It has made my personal and professional decision-making easier and it allows me to concentrate on doing an honest business and not waste time worrying about the consequences of a dishonest decision. Most importantly, I have a clear conscience.”
Executive director of YTL Singapore
“My siblings and I have always been reminded by my father [Francis Yeoh, managing director of YTL Group of Companies], that to whom much is given, much will be required, and I believe there is much wisdom in this. Having started the sustainability division in our company, which I now lead, I feel a sense of stewardship because my sustainability concerns aren’t just about the environment but the well-being of our people too.”
CEO and executive director of MS Holdings
“Listen to and accept with humility the feedback that comes from customers, business partners and your team. This has been the most important advice I’ve received from my mother [Ng Chui Hwa, executive chairman]. It gives me confidence to ask my more experienced co-workers, business partners and customers questions that will help me find new ways to improve our business model and sustain our growth. True business success comes from continuous learning adaptation and teamwork.”
Director and Grandluxe and founder and CEO of Bynd Artisan
“My father Percy, who took over Grandluxe from his father in 1964 and is now its managing director, has always taught me to take care of our business partners and suppliers the same way we look for long-term instead of short-term gains. His philosophy is that as the business grows, our suppliers will be able to grow with us too. Thus, he doesn’t believe in squeezing our suppliers and always leaves the negotiating table with something for all to benefit from.”
General manager of strategic development at Eu Yan Sang
“’Hard work, honesty and humility,’ my grandad [Richard K M Eu] said. This mantra has shaped who I am today and how I measure a new hire or business partner’s character, values and work ethic. My dad [Richard Y M Eu], who’s our group CEO, reminds me that as our business grows and shifts toward professional management, we should never lose sight of the values that define the essence and soul of Eu Yan Sang and the Eu family. Thus, business and family values are interconnected. And as a fifth-generation executive, it’s important that I respect and uphold such wisdom since those values have guided and led us over 137 years.”